RAPID CITY, S.D. - When Maj. Stephen Sewell III was in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan in October 2008 training the Afghan National Police, he received an e-mail offering outdoor adventures to returning veterans.
With the end of his tour months away, Sewell submitted his name for a dog sledding expedition in the northern Minnesota wilderness. He didn’t think he had a chance at being selected, but to his surprise he was.
“I couldn’t believe I was chosen,” said Sewell of Black Hawk, S.D. “I’m so glad I applied for the adventure. It was a great experience.”
Sewell applied for the adventure though the Outward Bound Veterans Program, a program funded by the Sierra Club, an environmental protection organization, and operated by Outward Bound, an outfitter and guide service. The program is designed to help give returning veterans of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom a chance to readjust and transition back to civilian life after serving overseas.
“Everything is paid for – from the expedition to the cost of the flight – the Sierra Club really takes care of the veteran,” said Sewell. “The people from Outward Bound were amazing as well; a non-profit organization that are truly professional and care about people.”
The program also offers hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, sailing and whitewater rafting in addition to the dog sledding adventure.
“There are many adventures that are offered for the outdoors enthusiast. I chose dog sledding because it was the most unique and challenging expedition on the list,” said Sewell, a member of the 196th Regiment (Regional Training Institute) of the South Dakota Army National Guard.
Sewell said the goal of the program is to help veterans build a supportive community with other veterans, facilitate discussions on readjustment and transition challenges, and re-energize and reinvigorate veterans’ spirits with adventures and challenges in the beautiful outdoors.
“For every service member that has deployed, there is usually a readjustment back to their normal life on some level,” said Sewell, who deployed as part of an embedded training team. “This program really helped to ease my transition after I returned home.”
In February 2009, Sewell, along with five other veterans from across the country, experienced an eight-day expedition in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, a million acres of wilderness with over 1,000 pristine lakes and streams.
“All the veterans came from different backgrounds and life experiences, but the common bond we shared was our military backgrounds,” said Sewell.
Sewell admits his first ideas of the dog sledding adventure were not quite what he’d expected.
“Contrary to visions I had of the fast-moving Iditarod sled-dog race, dog sledding in portages and frozen lakes provided a real physical challenge I didn’t expect,” said Sewell. “Righting the sled after it tipped on tight turns, cross-country skiing over slick-as-slime ice-covered lakes, and scouting safe passages for the dogs and sleds required physical stamina.”
Sewell said the experience is not for someone, who wants everything done for them, and the staff was there to merely guide the group and advise them.
“Our team was responsible for setting up camp, taking care of the dogs; rigging them up, feeding them and caring for them, and making decisions on routes and techniques to get the sleds through some pretty challenging portages,” said Sewell.
The team consisted of two sleds, 11 dogs and an eight-person team consisting of two guides and six veterans. The team traveled four to six miles per day with half of the team cross-country skiing ahead of the sleds – to check ice thickness and to recon trails – and the other half to drive the sleds. At night, the team set up camp on the shore of one of the many frozen lakes in the Boundary Waters area and slept under the stars.
On one night, the veterans were required to camp and sleep alone; separated from the other team members. Sewell said this experience is designed to teach self-reliance and encourage self-reflection.
“The first day seemed like chaos dealing with 11 strong dogs that want to do nothing but pull a sled,” said Sewell. “By the middle of day two; I knew each dogs name and their individual personality.”
Sewell said learning the personalities of the dogs is critical to learning how to build and mush a successful dog team.
“By the end of the experience, I wanted to take the dogs home with me!” he said. “I have never seen an animal as dedicated to its job as a sled dog. Bird dogs have nothing on these guys!”
The Outward Bound adventures are designed to be more than just experiencing the outdoors and dog sledding; they are designed to provide a therapeutic environment that can help veterans transition from an overseas combat deployment to being home with family and friends, and for Sewell, it did just that.
“Being with veterans who fully understand the challenges of readjustment after the experience of deployment was extremely helpful to me,” said Sewell. “I recommend this program for anyone wanting to find adventure, a challenge and friendship.”